Struggling with health anxiety can be very isolating. For a long time, I was too embarrassed to talk about my experience. I was terrified of being judged, ridiculed, or dismissed. But as I learned more about hypochondria, I realized how important it is to open up and talk about the very real challenges of living with this unique mental illness. I think so many of us tend to suffer undiagnosed and without asking for help. I’m not an expert. But I hope that sharing my health anxiety story will encourage others take their own first steps towards wellness and know “you are not alone.”
My Health Anxiety Story
Trigger Alert: Please know I share in this post the experiences and stories that triggered my own health anxieties on Oral Cancer and Breast Cancer.
My health anxiety started when a colleague passed away from oral cancer just 6 months after his diagnosis. He was only 25 years old. How could that happen? It seemed so wrong.
I had never thought about the possibility of dying before. Its ironic to think that my job at the time was in a hospital fundraising foundation. Today’s me avoids even glancing at the check out magazines – just in case they feature an article on “10 Most Common Types of Cancer”.
Soon I started questioning – what if I had oral cancer and didn’t know it? Just like he did? I researched the topic online. Hours were spent learning everything I could about the signs and symptoms I should be looking for. I diligently started my monthly oral cancer checks.
Then I found it.
Two small, hard white spots on my gums at the back of my mouth.
I panicked and had that horrible feeling of my heart sinking into my stomach. You know that one? This was it. I was convinced. It was oral cancer. Had I caught it in time? Over and over, I looked at the same diagnostic pictures I found online.
I scheduled an appointment with my dentist, trying to prepare myself to hear the bad news.
It turned out my gums were receding around my impacted wisdom teeth. What a relief! I had surgery to remove them and no longer had to worry.
Living with Hypochondria
I didn’t realize that this was just the beginning of a growing and all consuming health anxiety that started to take over my life.
Shortly after the birth of my daughter, I came across a story of a young mother in my community who was diagnosed with breast cancer during her pregnancy. She fought hard for the next year but tragically passed, leaving behind her husband and three children.
I was devastated for her and her family. My own daughter was just a few months old. I couldn’t imagine leaving her and above all, I thought of how much she needed me. I wanted so much to be there for her, always and forever.
I couldn’t breathe………. and then I consulted the internet (why did I do that?)
I read that your breast cancer risk increases modestly during pregnancy. My family doesn’t have a history of breast cancer like the woman did in the story. But I had heard that not all cancers are genetic. The risk for my age was less than 0.5% according to the online calculators I frantically filled out. That didn’t matter to me because it wasn’t 0%
I did my monthly breast exam ……. several times an hour.
Was that lump there before? (I was breastfeeding, I had many new lumps). Is it movable? What do they mean by hard?
The “What if?” Worry Loop
And then the “What if?” questions started.
What if I have breast cancer? What if it is stage 4 and terminal? What if my doctor dismisses it as a clogged duct? (I had read stories on the internet where that had happened)
I was compelled to check, again and again.
After that, I spent months in the same obsessive loop of checking and searching for answers online – terrified that the stories I found in the forums could become my story too.
I’d like to say that my health anxiety ended after eventually receiving an all clear on both my mammogram and ABUS scan. I convinced myself that I wasn’t struggling with health anxiety, just a little understandable concern around breast cancer (well, and oral cancer too). Everything was fine! I could manage it. Meanwhile, I avoided my social media account in case health ads appeared on my newsfeed. I tried not to listen when someone shared a breast cancer story. I had to stop watching Grey’s Anatomy and Saving Hope. Everything was okay.
New worries and health anxiety concerns
Our bodies are very ‘noisy’. They have all sorts of perplexing sensations, strange smells, spots, and bizarre sounds. I knew the tingling in my fingers was probably just a pinched nerve from sleeping, but I started wondering about MS; the pain behind my eye was likely a cluster headache – not a brain tumor or aneurysm like I feared; and the tight feeling in my throat was allergies – probably not throat cancer…..
I felt so vulnerable and alone. Trapped by my thoughts and fearing each new sensation in case it triggered another debilitating episode of health anxiety.
Overcoming Health Anxiety – First Steps
Health anxiety can be deceiving. When caught in the whirlwind of uncertainty and fear, it’s hard to keep perspective. My problem wasn’t the symptoms and illnesses I was focusing on. I was ignoring the one thing I quietly knew I was suffering from – I was a hypochondriac.
It might seem obvious, but for me, coming to terms with my health anxiety and seeing it for what it was – was my first step towards managing my anxiety.
I decided something needed to change.
Diane Ackerman writes:
I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.
I don’t know if that part of me who asks the ‘what if’ questions will ever be completely silenced. I still have my anxious days. But I’m no longer overwhelmed by my health anxiety and negative thoughts. I’ve learned how to recognize my triggers and say ‘NO’ to the worry spiral before it starts. And on those days when nothing seems to go right, I remind myself that each moment is an opportunity to practice something new. To start trusting myself a little more. To face those uncertainties and let go of my fear. To embrace hope and know that tomorrow is a fresh start full of possibility.
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I’m not an expert. If you have any concerns about your health, you should always consult your doctor or other qualified health-care provider and don’t disregard or delay seeking professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment because of anything you read on this site. Wishing you well.